The State Senate Transportation Committee approved three bills, sponsored by Joseph Lagana (D-38), which would prevent bad actor bus companies from being awarded school bussing contracts, hinder the hiring of unqualified individuals as drivers and increase transparency.
“We made great strides to raise the safety standards required of our drivers and buses in a previous bill package,” said State Sen. Lagana. “However, far too often, there are cases where bus companies have been cited for poor practices and then continue operating under different names.”
“Not only are these companies evading consequences, but they are continually putting our students at risk, and it is imperative that we immediately revise the current standards so these hiring practices cease to occur.”
The first bill, S-3849, would require the State Board of Education to provide for debarment of school bus contractors for certain violations. The bill, also known as A-5818, passed in the Assembly on June 24 with Assembly members Christopher Tully (D-38) and Lisa Swain (D-38) sponsoring the bill.
“We simply cannot have unqualified and even dangerous drivers operating school buses due to unintended loopholes forcing school boards to award contracts to the lowest bidder, regardless of any red flags indicating that contractor is not suitable for the job,” said Tully. “We must close these loopholes to ensure school boards can take important considerations into account when selecting the people who will be entrusted with the care of our children.”
The bill amends current law to require a bid for a pupil transportation contract to identify each person who has any ownership interest in the company submitting the bid and to require a board of education to review the debarment list prior to awarding a pupil transportation contract.
A second bill, S-3851, would create the School Bus Safety Ombudsman position in the Department of Education to monitor and administer all school bus safety and oversight activities. The Assembly has already passed the bill, also known as A-5814, and was similarly sponsored by Tully and Swain.
Overseeing School Bus Safety
Under the bill, the School Bus Safety Ombudsman would be responsible for overseeing school bus operations, with responsibilities including but not limited to: reviewing bus drivers’ credentials and driving history, determining if a board of education has approved or assigned an unauthorized bus driver, and maintaining a list of persons debarred from serving as a school bus driver.
A third bill, S-3852, would revise the current violations and fines for knowingly or unknowingly approving or assigning unauthorized individuals as school bus drivers. Under the bill, the fines associated with this action would increase to a $5,000 maximum fine for the first offense, a $10,000 maximum fine for the second offense, and a $15,000 maximum fine for a third offense and each subsequent offense.
All three bills passed the Senate committee with a unanimous vote.
“The package of bills go a long way in protecting our children on their way to and from school,” said State Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-18), Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “Bus companies that don’t follow the rules should not be protected. Districts are now empowered to deny contracts to bad actors.”
In addition to the action taken in the state, Rep. Albio Sires introduced the School Bus Safety Act, requiring school buses to be equipped with three-point seat belts, emergency braking system and other modern safety equipment. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) plans to introduce companion legislation in the Senate in the weeks ahead.
Sires, a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the federal School Bus Safety Act would require the Department of Transportation to issue rules requiring all school buses to include:
- A three-point safety belt, which includes a seat belt across a lap as well as a shoulder harness to help protect passengers by restraining them in case of a collision;
- A Fire Suppression System, which addresses engine fires;
- A firewall that prohibits hazardous quantities of gas or flame to pass through the firewall from the engine compartment to the passenger compartment;
- An Automatic Emergency Braking System, which helps prevent accidents and crashes by detecting objects or vehicles ahead of the bus and braking automatically;
- An Event Data Recorder (EDR) that can record before and during a crash, driver inputs, and restraint usage when a collision occurred; and
- An Electronic Stability Control (ESC) System, which uses automatic computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to assist the driver to remain in control of the vehicle.
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